Almost every week I scroll to find a video on Twitter of young, white girls and boys, usually, teenagers expressing some of the most hateful, racist behavior toward Black people.
They laugh and giggle and look into the cameras of their smartphones as they repeat the N-word and wish that we, Black people, “could go back and experience slavery” without any care in the world.
If I didn’t study early childhood education and child psychology during undergrad, I might believe the conspiracy theorists who claim racism is determined by nature, not nurture, to rationalize what I was witnessing.
It would be easier I suppose, to believe that the hate that we see as a result of white supremacy is due to a brain malfunction rather than what it is: a lesson that is taught.
Throughout my studies, the theme that has stuck with me is the idea that children are sponges. Their brains soak up everything, good or bad, as they learn to navigate the world around them.
Babies and young toddlers look and listen with such intensity before they have the words to articulate what they’re seeing and feeling because their learning is always taking place.
Adults fail children when we forget that the little humans around us are sponges yearning to soak up everything. We assume they don’t understand or that they are not listening but the truth is their ears are always on.
During my second year as a preschool teacher at one of America’s well-known childcare providers, I had a single student on a particular day, a four-year-old boy.
This was not my first time with Timothy* in my class as my classroom was home to students three years old to five years old. I’d met his parents on several occasions and made the assumption they weren’t chatty people based on their coldness towards me.
I noticed when I greeted either of them, they were standoff-ish but I held off any further judgment and just wrote them off as non-talkative people.
I also took into account they were from Eastern Europe so English was not their first language and our cultural differences.
On this day, Timothy and I sat on the carpeted floor and played with wooden train tracks and blocks which was the most popular area in the classroom.
I observed as he tried to attach one of the wooded tracks into another piece, like a puzzle but came up short each time.
After some time, and seeing his frustration, I suggested he flip the track piece to see if that would work. He continued to force the piece on the wrong side so, again I gently encouraged him to flip the piece.
“N****r”, he said quietly and matter of factly continuing to play with the train tracks, never meeting my eyes.
In a low, gentle voice I asked Timothy what he had just said and it seemed like he was ignoring me until he repeated the N-word again some seconds later.
I heard Timothy the first time he said the N-word but couldn’t believe what I had heard. My ears had to be wrong.
I could go into my state of mind and how my body froze, but also trembled because I couldn’t believe that a child would ever say that word to me but I won’t because this isn’t about me.
This is about white supremacists raising the next generation of white supremacists.
I have held the newest of newborns, both family members and as a caregiver and there is not a single baby that has even an ounce of hate inside of them.
There’s a reason why the sight of babies and young children whether on a commercial or in line at the supermarket makes us smile, even when we don’t want to because of their innate beauty and innocence.
They are a blank slate and those around them are who help place things onto their slate.
As much as I felt anger when Timothy called me the N-word, I was more broken-hearted. This little boy had only been occupying space on Earth for a mere four years and he was already being indoctrinated into hate.
Racist rhetoric was repeated and showcased in such a meticulous way that this child could observe and repeat without fear of consequences because he didn’t believe he was saying anything wrong.
He was simply following the lead of the adults around him, soaking up what they taught him to be true, like a sponge.
Critics will say maybe he learned it at his school from other students. I could entertain this idea if I didn’t meet his parents and see the way that they treated me and other Black teachers.
This could even be plausible if he was older, but he was four-years-old.
He didn’t know any better because he was a child, but his parents and the adults around him definitely knew better.
Somewhere in the world, Timothy is in high school, a thirteen or fourteen-year-old young boy. I wonder what kind of person he has become and is becoming.
I wonder if his parents were able to see the error of their ways and course correct immediately to prevent any racial trauma to another Black teacher or student?
The cycle of generational hate begins at a young age.
We can see this in the images and postcards of white people making a family gathering out of the lynchings of Black people in the 19th and 20th centuries.
In the images, young, white children smile with their parents behind them while the bodies of Black men and women hang in the backdrop.
Who are those young white children in those images today?
Today, the teachings are not traditional in that the parent sits down with their child and “teaches” them how to be racist and hateful, though it wouldn’t be surprising.
It is in the actions and words of the adults. It is in how the adult speaks to their Black waiter.
It is in how the white adult acknowledges their child’s Black teacher; do they shake their hand? Do they request a different teacher?
It is in which children the white parent invites to their child’s birthday party, and it is in which children are allowed over for sleepovers.
Adults are always teaching, and children are always learning.